Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Boutique Idaho cheese means excellence

Idaho's premier cheese makers continue to thrive in tough economy

 Gooding—Ballard Cheese of Jerome is thriving.

 Steve and Stacie Ballard started their small dairy a decade ago with just a few Jersey calves and the belief that happy cows and a healthy, grass-fed diet could bring a high-quality product and they were right.

 Quality jersey milk led them to artisan cheese and a brand was born. Their cheese is sought after from high-end pizza parlors across the Northwest to restaurants and fine wineries.

Ballard cheese is a brand thats tasty, innovative but at reasonable price. The cheese is available at the Boise Co-op, Whole Foods, Winco, Idaho Bounty and Marathon Cheese factory in Mountain Home. They’re on the menu at Boise finest restaurants including Bittercreek/Red Feather, Fork and Brick 29 Bistro in Boise.

 We chatted with Steve Ballard between chores at his Jerome farm:

 You continue to get bigger every year, where are you going market wise? We’re continuing our work with Idaho Preferred and they’re a great help in the marketing. They’re getting us in touch with all the new wineries. We found that our cheeses and wineries are the perfect fit, people try us once and they’re hooked.

You’ve always been innovators, any new products?
We have a couple of new cheeses that are in production and will get them out later this year. We made a 'Smokin' Joe Gouda' cheese that we made for the University of Idaho in conjunction with Idaho dairymen and we got that licensed a couple of years ago. We’re marketing that now. It gives us another cheese to market. Our cheddar cheese products range from fresh out of the vat cheese curds. We have rich and mellow aged cheddar cheese, and we have our Danish Pearl Gouda which is creamy and melts in your mouth, We have this Golden Greek grillin' cheese, an award Winning Truffle Cheddar, Holy Cow Swiss and Jersey Dream Feta. We like to spice things up with our popular variety cheeses curds like Garlic Herb, Garlic Pepper, Cool Ranch, Tomato & Basil, Dill, Hot & Spicy Pepper and all the product lines are selling

 The milk market has been tough, are things turning around?
All the cheeses are still selling strong. For the commercial cheese we’re not getting that good of a milk price, that price keeps going down and it could be better. Of all the state commodities milk is one of the few that stays up, but cost of production is still high. We have a lot of overhead but we have just enough margin to get by. Just like all small businesses we have to pay FICA and Workman’s Comp and all the other stuff and it all adds up.

Besides that, what are your biggest input costs? 
My biggest input cost right now is power. Power and labor, the most expensive by far. We put in commercial power a few years ago to save money but our rate started going up. We were trying to get a better price for cost of production but it didn't work too good. So you just start to make good money and another expense pops up. It’s the high cost of doing business. Workers, when you can find them, take a big chunk out of our expenses.

 So are you still running the same herd? 
We have about 150 head of Jerseys, and they are good cattle for us, thats where we get our yields. We yield 12.5 to 13.5 percent in the wintertime so where we have a small run, every pound we can yield works that much better. We get about 55 pounds of milk per day per cow. For Jerseys its average, but our quality is amazing and we don’t want to mess with that.

So does the low cost of feed help with the inputs? 
Hay has been the saving grace this past year, the prices were low. While the feed costs were down, I’ve heard that hay is starting to go crazy again. We lost a lot of hay with the floods last February. We have a lot of our ground in grass we don't pasture the cattle, we raise grass so we can feed it and its all part of the plan. There’s nothing like that grass flavor for cheese.

Small businesses always face growing pains, what’s yours? 
We’ve been trying to work with the bank for the past few years. We want to build a new packing building. We’re at a production bottleneck right now. Until we can fund the plant we can’t increase sales all that much. We’re not running at capacity and we can't because of the bottleneck. All the money is locked up for small businesses, we’re hoping things change under this next administration so we can expand and really do something. The demand is there, sales are good with a new packing building we can produce more and make more. That’s what we’re up against, trying to find a workable interest rate at a fair price so we can grow.

So Ballard Cheese is visible everywhere, what’s your production output?
 Last year we did very good, we produced 60-thousand pounds of cheese. Thats an excellent year for us and its all about suppling the market and retailers want our cheese. We could slow down production and raise prices for a better bottomline but then you're competing against commodity cheeses. We have a loyal market but there’s a price limit, a ceiling but we haven’t found it. This coming year I think we'll break even or a bit better. It all depends on input expenses but we’ll be right there at the end of the year. We’re not going to set the world on fire, a lot of that has to do with our production bottleneck. We have goals and we want to build the new building and incorporate a little Ag tourism into our operation. It’s going to offset us not going to the farmers markets. We want to get people to the farm so they see us and learn from our operation.

The Ballard brand continues to grow, people love the cheese, how does it make you feel? It’s gratifying but sometimes we’re so busy that we don't have time to stop and think about how well the brand is doing. Sometimes I’m just trying to get the next job done. There are times when we don't take time to appreciate what we have accomplished. We’re always striving for good quality and selling at a good price and we're successful at that.

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